Category Archives: Shakespeare


(Patrick Freyne’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 5/5; King Lear in a Van: Arthur Riordan as King Lear with Karen McCartney as Cordelia and Matthew Malone as Kent. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw.)

King Lear in a Van is a clever way of bringing theatre and drama to the masses

If you were loitering around Ely Place in Dublin recently you may have heard some worrying bellowing from the car park/loading bay of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). Don’t worry, it was just King Lear, sitting on a yellow Ikea throne in the back of a converted van having it out with his daughters Cordelia, Regan and Goneril.

“Where we’re rehearsing today is the first time we have had good acoustics,” says Matthew Malone who plays Goneril, Regan, Gloucester and Kent in this production of King Lear in a van. “And Arthur is booming.” King Lear is played by Arthur Riordan. “It’s been a while since I’ve heard that. It’s like the Abbey, this car park.”

King Lear in a Van is the new offering from Festival in a Van which was devised at the outset of the pandemic by regular Irish Times contributor Gemma Tipton. King Lear is on the Leaving Cert this year and the team are available to perform at schools with help from the Bank of Ireland/Business to Arts Begin Together grant. Tipton has form with festivals. She ran the Kinsale Arts Festival and the Backwater Opera Festival. “I’d been writing about festivals closing down, talking to people who didn’t know when they were going to work again,” she says. “I thought, well, is there a way to do live performance safely?”

She had an epiphany and woke in the middle of the night saying: “Festival in a Van!” She enlisted production manager Rob Furey and production manager and health and safety expert Pete Jordan and, with financial support from Creative Ireland, they bought a van, hired two more vans and built sets that could be unfolded from them in just 10 minutes. “To start with,” she says, “I thought, ‘Oh, people won’t want to be in a van.’”

She hadn’t reckoned with how hungry performers were to perform and how hungry audiences were for live performance. They’ve worked with storytelling group Candlelit Tales, opera singers like Gavin Ring and drag performers like Avoca Reaction and arranged performances at schools, care homes, direct provision centres and housing estates. “One of the things that’s been good about Covid is the forgotten spaces have been looked at again,” says Tipton. “Who cared about care homes and direct provision centres?”

‘Heartbreakingly gorgeous’

She is now aware of a “map” of isolated care homes scattered all over the country and thinks there could be scope for projects like this to continue beyond the pandemic, bringing art and music to people that don’t always have access to it. Some of the experiences they’ve had, she says, have been “heartbreakingly gorgeous”. Furey recalls an 84-year-old former session musician moved to tears experiencing live music from the van. Tipton tells me about a letter she received from a woman who runs a care home after a performance by Gavin Ring. “She wrote saying ‘This is the only nice thing that’s happened in 12 months’, which also makes you realise how shitty it’s been for them.”

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BY William Shakespeare
PREMIERE: Triplex Performing Arts Center, NYC January 9, 1990
Ruth Maleczech with Greg Mehrten and Karen Kandel, photo by Michael Cooper.
“It’s rude, it’s radical, it’s outrageous. And it’s one of the most powerful Shakespeare productions I’ve seen in a long time.”

Visit Mabou Mines:
Ruth Maleczech, photo by Jonathan Atkin.
“Lear (Ruth Maleczech) could be a Tennessee Williams Big Mama. Her evil sons Goneril and Regan are bourbon-swilling good ol’ boys who have their way with the bastard Elva (nee Edmund), a hot number in tight leather jeans, in the back seat of a convertible. The fool, a transvestite wearing a tatty fur coat and wielding a dildo instead of a coxcomb, is divine, if not exactly Divine. The music of Hank Williams and Elvis competes with the chattering of crickets for dominance of the fetid night air.”

– Frank Rich NY Times
Isabell Monk, Ruth Maleczech, Karen Kandel and Greg Mehrten, photos by Beatriz Schiller.


(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/30/2021; Photo: Shashi Kapoor and Felicity Kendal in Shakespeare Wallah, the second feature by Merchant Ivory Productions. Photograph: Allstar/Merchant Ivory Productions.)

The Kendal family of actors star in a story inspired by their travels around India, whose booming film industry upstages their theatrical troupe.

The actor Geoffrey Bragg was born in 1909 in the Lake District and later adopted the name of his birth town of Kendal but, at schools and theatres across India in the 1940s and 50s, he was recognised simply as the “Shakespeare Wallah”. The adventurous troupe of performers he led in productions of classic plays included his wife, Laura Liddell, daughter Jennifer and youngest daughter Felicity Kendal, who worked first as a stage hand then made her acting debut aged nine as Macduff’s son in Macbeth.

Geoffrey Kendal and his family star together in the film Shakespeare Wallah (1965), produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory as the second feature for their fledgling Merchant Ivory stable. In the film, the Kendals’ theatre ensemble, which was named Shakespeareana, morphs into a troupe called the Buckingham Players. In this motley company, Geoffrey and Laura play the parents, essaying the great tragic and comic roles on stage while keeping the books for their winding third-class travels around the subcontinent. Eighteen-year-old Felicity plays their daughter, Lizzie, giving her Desdemona and Ophelia by night while embarking on a romance with playboy Sanju (Shashi Kapoor). Jennifer Kendal, who was Kapoor’s offscreen wife, has a small supporting role and designed costumes for the film.

Shakespeare Wallah is set in a rapidly modernising India whose pop culture is eclipsing English traditions and rendering the Buckingham Players an anachronism. The booming homegrown film industry is represented by Bollywood star Manjula (played by actor turned chef Madhur Jaffrey) who also has a relationship with Sanju. Lizzie finds herself directly competing against a glamorous screen icon, just as the stage views cinema as a rival.

Although the film is rooted in a specific sociocultural moment for India, the threat posed to theatre by screen entertainment remains as universal now as it did then. In his Guardian obituary for Geoffrey Kendal in 1998, Ivory wrote about the tensions during the production with the veteran actor: “He let me know how he despised the cinema – that the cinema was his enemy, causing theatres to be empty and tours to be cancelled.” But Kendal – who has an ease in front of the camera despite his lack of film experience – came to recognise that thanks to Ivory “it was the despised cinema that told the world of my existence and to a certain extent of my fight”.

And the despised cinema is here undeniably beautiful. Shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons) by Subrata Mitra, the film has a stately pace, is sensitively written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and comes with music by the esteemed director Satyajit Ray. The bumpy travels of theatre troupes often make for bittersweet comic escapades such as in Fellini’s Variety Lights (1950) or George Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights (1960). But Shakespeare Wallah has a clear-eyed view of the company’s itinerant life as they veer from private performances in palaces to remote school audiences, the thrill of acting offset by umpteen card games and window gazing in between.

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(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/19; Ambitious … Jonathan Slinger in Richard III by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Roundhouse, London, in 2008. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)

The Royal Shakespeare Company survived establishment resistance and economic storms to become a powerhouse. How should it now change?

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, as it happens. In 1960 Peter Hall created a theatrical revolution. He turned a summer Shakespeare festival in Stratford-on-Avon into a year-round enterprise based on a permanent ensemble, a second home in London and a mix of classical and contemporary work. But it wasn’t until 20 March 1961 that the whole enterprise was given the name we know today: the Royal Shakespeare Company. As the director William Gaskill cynically remarked of the new title: “It has everything in it except God.”

Sixty years on, even as we celebrate the RSC’s survival, new questions arise. What is it really for? How does it adapt to a changing world? Do we still believe in large theatrical institutions? What is fascinating, as you look back over the RSC’s history, is how it faced challenges right from the start. West End producers, led by the all-powerful Hugh Beaumont at HM Tennent, felt threatened by its presence in London. The Arts Council, committed to the establishment of a National Theatre, was slow to subsidise the enterprise and always ensured it was treated as the poor relation. Even the grand vision of permanent companies soon lost its idealistic sheen. As early as 1973, Hall, confronting a hostile Arts Council Drama Panel as he took over at the National Theatre, noted how “the radical dreams of yesterday become the institutions of today to be fought and despised”.

At least in the 1960s Hall had the advantage of creating something new. He also found different ways to give the RSC a distinct identity. One was by grand projects such as the 1963 production of The Wars of the Roses: this epic conflation of the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III epitomised the decade’s fascination with the brutality of power politics. Hall also licensed experiment: in 1963 he gave his co-director, Peter Brook, freedom to work on an Artaud-inspired collage, Theatre of Cruelty, with no obligation to achieve a public result but out of which came Brook’s sensational production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade. For me, however, one of the highlights of the Hall years was his own 1965 Aldwych production of Pinter’s The Homecoming, which offered the unprecedented spectacle of a new play being presented with the same attention to textual detail that the company brought to Shakespeare.

It is easy to romanticise the 1960s but they were heady times. The problem for Hall’s successors has been how to redefine the RSC in a changing world: against, for instance, the context of the economic storms of the 1970s and the Thatcherite marketisation of everything in the 1980s. Astonishingly, the RSC survived but it was often a close-run thing. In 1986 I was part of an Arts Council inquiry into theatre in England chaired by Sir Kenneth Cork. At one meeting, we were presented with a paper advocating the abolition of the RSC to allow its subsidy to be disseminated to regional theatres. The idea was rejected on the grounds that we would sacrifice a national asset without doing enough to salvage the regions. I only mention it now as an example of just how perilous the RSC’s survival sometimes was.

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(via the Public Theater)

The Delacorte isn’t empty…

It’s full of HOPE, PURPOSE, PROMISE… and what it needs now is YOU.

We have spent the last year getting ready. We have been producing new work and preparing for a safe return. We’ve grieved, Zoomed, innovated, supported our communities, and connected our city. We’ve gathered brilliant artists to imagine a return to summers under the stars in Central Park. We have Saheem Ali and Jocelyn Bioh ready to fill The Delacorte with a rollicking new adaptation of Shakespeare’s MERRY WIVESset in South Harlem in a joyous celebration of New York’s West African community. We have the energy, the drive, and the absolute conviction that we will find a way to safely share a summer of Free Shakespeare in the Park with our city.

Help us get back to The Delacorte on July 5. 

Visit the Public Theater.


Collage of images of figures and events of the Harlem Renaissance. Louis Armstrong plays trumpet in a photo of Swingin the Dream, comedian Moms Mabley, an actor in costume for the voodoo Macbeth directed by Orson Welles, actor and director Rose McClendon

(L to R) Swingin’ the Dream, 1939; Moms Mabley; From Macbeth, 1936 (Courtesy New York Public Library); Rose McClendon, 1936 (Courtesy Library of Congress American Memory Collection); Outside the Lafayette Theater on the opening night of Macbeth, 1936 (Courtesy Library of Congress American Memory Collection).

(Dr. Freda Giles is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev for Shakespeare Unlimited and Folger Shakespeare Library.)

Want more? Browse our full list of Shakespeare Unlimited episodes.

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 161

When you think about the Harlem Renaissance, theater might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But, says Dr. Freda Scott Giles, theater played a significant role in the blossoming of Black American arts and culture of the 1920s and ’30s. Of course, because there’s little in the English-language theater untouched by Shakespeare, he was present in the Harlem Renaissance too. Banner Shakespeare productions included Orson Welles’s hit “Voodoo” Macbeth, produced by the Federal Theater Project, and the Midsummer-inspired Swingin’ the Dream, which was a Broadway flop despite the talents of musician Louis Armstrong and comedian Moms Mabley.

We talk to Dr. Giles, Associate Professor Emerita of Theatre and Film Studies and African American Studies at the University of Georgia, about how the artists and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance regarded the Bard. Plus, we visit the African Company of the 1820s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s to learn about more than a century of Black responses to Shakespeare. Dr. Giles is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifySoundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dr. Freda Scott Giles is Associate Professor Emerita of Theater at the University of Georgia. She was a contributor to three books: Tarell Alvin McCraney: Theater, Performance, and Collaboration, published in 2020; Constructions of Race in Southern Theatre: From Federalism to the Federal Theatre Project, published in 2003; and American Mixed Race: The Culture of Microdiversity, which was published in 1995.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published February 16, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I Here Engage My Words,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.


MICHAEL WITMORE: Shakespeare’s work was written during a time that a lot of people call “The Renaissance.” There was another Renaissance—one that was closer to our time. And Shakespeare was a part of that one, too.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. The time I’m referring to is “The Harlem Renaissance.” Ten or so years of artistic and intellectual abundance fueled by the Great Migration, by Caribbean immigration, and by dreams to reconstruct the world of Reconstruction by Black soldiers coming home from World War I. 

Dr. Freda Scott Giles is an Associate Professor Emerita of Theatre and Film Studies and African American Studies at the University of Georgia and for decades, she’s studied the theater world of the Harlem Renaissance. Because there’s almost nothing in the English-language theater that isn’t touched by Shakespeare, you won’t be surprised to find him here too, and not just in the places you’d expect. We found Dr. Giles’ perspective on this intersection so fresh, that we had to bring it to you.

She joined us for this podcast, which we call, “I Here Engage My Words.” Dr. Freda Scott Giles is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

BARBARA BOGAEV: Freda, just to start us off, I have a really basic question. How big a role did theater play in the Harlem Renaissance? Because when I think back to my history books, they seem to play a—you know, writers of all kinds and poets and painters, but what about theater and playwrights?

FREDA SCOTT GILES: Yes, that’s the problem that when the theater component of this era is remembered, the theater is reduced in significance. But the people who were living in that time thought that theater was very significant.

W.E.B. Du Bois thought that theater would be a major element in changing people’s minds about who African Americans are, what the problems are. He himself started a theater company, and he wanted to build up a national black theater that would have a circuit of theaters through the United States where plays by, for, and about African Americans would be performed. They even had a running segment in The Crisis called, “The Negro in Art: How Will He Be Portrayed.” And all of the intellectual voices of the period, white and Black, chimed in on what theater should be and what the theater should do.

BOGAEV: Wow, so it was seminal. Did Du Bois write plays himself?

GILES: Yes, he did. Du Bois wrote plays. He never published them, but I read them in his papers.

BOGAEV: Huh. Well, what were his plays like?

GILES: Well, he really appreciated expressionism. Several of the plays are very expressionistic and would be hard to produce, because you would have… one play he had civilization crashing down, and I said, “Hmm, I wonder what that looks like.”

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